If you take one part "House of Flying Daggers" add a dose of "Crouching Tiger," and end with "Dragon Wars," you get "47 Ronin." A fictional take on a real legend, this Keanu Reeves vehicle attempts to be a grand spectacle in the Zhang Yimou tradition, but it is so afraid to just tell a historical story that it adds witchcraft, random beasts, a cartoon fox, and a giant white dragon just in case it thought the audience would get bored. The result isn’t so much awful, it’s just confused and ultimately kind of boring.
The film is based on the true story of the Forty-seven Ronin who had taken revenge on a court official who compelled their master to kill himself. After their revenge, they were obligated to commit suicide themselves for the crime of murder -- the most famous example of the samurai code of honor.
In this latest retelling, we have the tale of an outcast half-breed Kai (Keanu Reeves) who is taken in by the Ronin even though he is still considered to be not one of them. He falls for the Lord’s daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki) with whom he has a secret relationship. But when a samurai competition between the ronin’s master Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and a rival family’s leader Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) goes awry, Lord Asano is put to death and his right hand man Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is put in a pit for one year. Mika is then promised to Lord Kira and everything is put asunder. Meanwhile, there’s a mean Witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who works for Lord Kira in trying to take down the rival family.
At least that’s what I think was going on.
There are so many characters and machinations going on that the storyline gets confused and over-saturated. Star Keanu Reeves gets lost in all of this, and while the focus seems to be him from the beginning, he becomes sort of a non-character as the story progresses. So to comment on his acting would be difficult since he doesn’t say a lot. He can certainly swing a sword and he’s aging really well, but other than that, this isn’t a return to any sort of star power.
Directed by Carl Rinsch in his feature film debut, the film looks fairly good (after a badly CGI’d opening) and it aims for an epic grandness, but it never quite reaches the heights for which it strives. Screenwriters Hossein Amini ("Drive") and Chris Morgan ("Fast and Furious 6") clearly have two styles and this is apparent by the uneven tone and style of the film. Do they want to be a fun, special effects laden action adventure? Or a real meditation on samurai loyalty?
The acting by the supporting cast is fine, although much of it requires stoic posing as if every dramatic moment were a tableau. The only real weak link is Kikuchi’s Witch. While it’s fun to watch her transform into a slithery fabric and fly around, her line deliveries in human form are painful to listen to. And if you’re a fan of tattooed Zombie Boy Rick Genest and are excited that he has been placed prominently in the film’s advertising campaign, you might be sorely disappointed when you realize he has about 5 lines and 3 minutes of screen time.
All in all, this does not do the incredible story of the 47 Ronin justice. And when Falcor shows up in the final reel, you really just start to wonder what you’re actually watching.